Innovative SOULutions is a new, local nonprofit dedicated to preventing gun violence and creating safe and healing environments for community members who have been directly affected by gun violence. The organization provides comprehensive supports and relationships to support toward holistic healing, therapy and resource-connection all year-round.
In 2022, Innovative SOULutions began partnering with Three Rivers Park District to bring families affected by gun violence out into nature for opportunities to reflect, connect and heal. Three Rivers staff provide the needed equipment, recreation instruction, and spaces for gathering in and near nature; Innovative SOULutions recruits and supports families who attend activities.
The partnership is supported with federal American Recovery Program funding administered through Hennepin County.
Three Rivers’ Community Engagement Supervisor, Amanda Fong, sat down with Innovative SOULutions’ founder and executive director, Farji Shaheer, to talk about some of his favorite memories and moments of impact from the past year, as well as his vision for the year to come.
What was your own introduction to the outdoors and what has that looked like in your life?
I grew up in Chicago and remember that in the early ‘90s, when me and my brothers were becoming teenagers, it was a time of great hostility in the city. There were wars between neighborhoods, and boys who had been playing like kids the previous year were now getting connected to gangs. That summer I was selected to go to Union League Boys and Girls Club in Wisconsin — we took a bus out to the camp for two weeks. That’s where I got my knack for canoeing, swimming and camping in general, because I had so much fun. I was like a Camp Helper — I got so good at pitching tents that I was helping set up campsites for other cabins.
But one night, I was helping to set up a campsite and got back to my cabin late. The director came and pulled me out of the cabin and said I had to leave. He kicked me out of camp because he said I was out too late. He drove me all the way back home in the middle of the night.
I had learned so much — I was an ideal camper. I wanted to learn everything; I was earning all my patches. The counselors knew where I was; they knew I was helping others with their tent set-up, but that didn’t change the outcome. They still kicked me out. The truth is, they saw me as a problem as soon as I got off the bus. I was coming from the projects — they could see it in my face and feel it in my aura. The director was looking for an opportunity to get rid of me.
That ended up being a really negative experience — I'm surprised it didn’t ruin the natural environment for you altogether.
Well, look how long it’s been. I haven’t done anything like this since I was a child.
Oh, wow. I didn’t realize it had been that long. What has this experience been like for you personally to be at these events in the parks?
I haven't been camping since that summer, but it's always been on my mind. The first time we came out to Baker Outdoor Learning Center, it was like I had fallen back in love with what I naturally love and do. I've enjoyed every minute of it — even skiing; I've never skied before. It's been enlightening and it motivates me. It exposes me to so much, and I just want to share it with others.
What was your first reaction when Three Rivers’ Community and Cultural Liaison David approached you with the idea of partnering on this grant proposal in fall 2021?
I was like, “That’s what’s up! That’s dope. Tell me what I gotta do!” I was extremely excited and honored to think about Innovative SOULutions being able to do something on a regular basis with the parks. And I was motivated — let's see what we can accomplish.
I wanted to bring people outside. I’ve been working on ways to reduce communal anxiety. When traumatic events like shootings or stabbings happen in a community, it creates ripples beyond that event. People are afraid to go outside because there's a general fear of getting shot or jumped on. Some kids have trouble sleeping at night because of shootings that occur in the neighborhoods. Bringing people outside of their homes and into safe spaces reduces anxiety and fear of being outside. The more they come outside, the more they get introduced to other people, build bonds and start feeling comfortable around one another. It is also an opportunity for families to see and experience what’s outside of the city limits. No busy streets, no police sirens or ambulances — they're able to take the time to just enjoy life.
My hope is to engage with as many people as possible and engage with them to the point where they start feeling safe with one another and in their neighborhood. If they are in those environments, at least get them to the point where they feel comfortable to go outside, so they can at least go to their neighborhood park or activities closer to their home.
Learn more about Three Rivers Park District's partnership with Innovative SOULutions in this video from CCX Media.
Can you talk a bit about your organization and your mission?
The ultimate goal of Innovative SOULutions is to provide individuals within the community different ways to cope through trauma and become the natural people that they should be. We want to give them all the options that are needed to provide a stable life that is focused on healing, discipline, honor and integrity. I'm introducing a different approach to how individuals handle their mental and environmental health, while also connecting individuals to their inner self to become a more rounded and grounded kind of individual, to become productive citizens or active agents of change.
We do this by providing full, comprehensive services — everything from assistance with housing and receiving benefits to assistance with recreation and reducing communal anxiety. This starts immediately after a traumatic incident has occurred, sometimes even in the hospital. We provide long-term support with mentoring, life coaching, job training and whatever else is needed — housing, mental health services — so that they become stabilized.
What were your greatest hopes for what this partnership would mean for Innovative SOULutions and for the families you work with?
I was hoping for a reduction of communal anxiety, an increase in nature proficiency, an increase in environmental awareness and engagement in activities that have never been thought of by children in our community. This community includes individuals who have limited income and who live in areas impacted by trauma. Individuals who come from majority single-parent homes, and who do not have adequate resources to engage in some of the activities like sports in school or in their community. And also individuals who are at high-risk of being perpetrators or survivors of violence. I was hoping for the strengthening of family bonds by families being able to connect in a natural healing environment and safe space.
Why was it important to you that participants grow in their own environmental awareness within your broader vision of preventing and healing from violence?
It’s important to let children know that the world is bigger than the spaces they live in. It encourages families to spend time outside, to do things that are recreational versus sitting in the house and playing video games all day. I wanted them to engage with other community members in a space that is unfamiliar to them, because it gives individuals an opportunity to start fresh. There are no outside factors interfering in the ability to develop a genuine relationship between participants and their families. When families are in areas where they can reduce their stress — removed from the interruptions, the drama, the random shooting in their neighborhood — they can take a couple hours and just be with each other.
For example, a 20-year-old mother came to one of our programs at the parks this summer with her child. She’s had to take on a lot: her mom passed away, her sister was shot and the father of her child was murdered. But once she got a chance to move and groove, she was movin’ and groovin’. She was fishing, slacklining, kayaking. Her child was busy doing other activities and supported by the broader community at the event. Without having to have her attention 100% focused as the head of household, she was able to engage with people her age and just be a kid. She didn’t want to come at first; she said: “I’m not going into the woods! What am I going to do in the woods?!” But now every time I see her, she asks me: “When are we going back out there?”
Can you share more about the work that your team does during and in between these gatherings to prevent violence in community?
Every two weeks from June through October, we did block takeovers inside the neighborhoods that are considered the highest risk for violence, based on the number of people who have been shot in that area. We block off the streets to traffic for several hours and create a safe space within community. We provide food, games, giveaways, and information and resources related to moving through trauma and preventing further violence. We engaged with about 100 people at each event, sharing information about violence prevention, getting folks trained in how to stop active bleeding and recruiting them for other opportunities to engage with us at Innovative SOULutions, including our events at the parks.
During our events with Three Rivers and in other spaces, we also facilitate healing circles. In our shorter events, these are framed as more of an introductory piece for the attendees. A moment of gathering reflections or sharing affirmations with one another of what they are learning or enjoying, or what is missing in the events and in our activities being offered, a collective debrief. For overnight events, these healing circles are longer, are focused on deeper and harder questions of healing and reconciliation, and can get very emotional and powerful.
Throughout 2022, we’ve partnered together on a wide variety of events throughout the parks — archery lessons, group bike rides, cross-country skiing, river rafting, two overnight experiences, a fall celebration and many more.
What has been your favorite event and why?
All of them. I don’t think there’s one that I did not enjoy. If I had to choose a stand-out, it would be a coin-toss between river rafting on the Mississippi and camping out at Crow-Hassan Park Reserve.
At the river rafting event at Mississippi Gateway Regional Park, everybody was afraid at first. They were saying: “What are we doing out here? We’re going to be on the river in this tiny little boat?!” We needed a lot of teamwork to make sure to keep the boat afloat — everyone was very attentive to the instructions and what was being said to make sure we kept afloat and safe. Then it was a great day for everyone. We could’ve done that all day.
And the camping trip at Crow-Hassan; it was just about being out there. A windstorm came through the first night, the wind blowing away the tents, the rain getting everybody wet… it created experiences that families had never had before. The healing circle we led that night was incredibly powerful. The kids were having fun in their own circle, so most of the folks in our circle were over 24 years old — creating space for genuine conversation about our community, certain things that we can do better to help keep our community safe, different strands of thought surrounding violence. We were in our feelings about race relations and gun violence and feeling the stereotype of black-on-black crime. And all these brothers were from different neighborhoods. It was phenomenal.
Could you share any stories of impact from participants who have joined for any of our joint programming?
There was a family who attended our overnight at Baker Outdoor Learning Center in June that had a family member murdered at the start of 2022. They had really been struggling — a lot of grief and feeling locked in sad stories. During the camp, the family was able to regain a sense of how they wanted to move forward. After the camp, they structured themselves well enough to start creating memorial events and to start pursuing a court case. The matriarch of the family gained custody of her nephew. It gave them a moment to just pause for a few days. And now they’re moving forward — all gas, no brakes. It was beautiful to watch.
What are you hoping for in 2023 and beyond for our partnership program?
Swimming lessons! More kayaking. More biking. More archery. More river rafting and camping. Definitely more camping. If we could camp once per month in the summer, that would be dope.
It would be awesome to repeat the training we did this past year. We certified 40 people in first aid and CPR this year. We brought 45 people to Baker Outdoor Learning Center and had similar numbers camping at Crow-Hassan Park Reserve. We trained 20 people in Traumatic Bleed Training, teaching individuals hands-on skills on how to reduce the flow of blood after a gunshot wound. It would be great to get more people through that next year.
Amanda Fong started working at Three Rivers Park District in 2013 and currently serves as the Community Engagement Supervisor. Amanda seeks to build genuine relationships, to be a connector of people and ideas, and ultimately to increase equitable access to outdoor spaces and experiences. She finds a sense of peace in the outdoors and especially enjoys bike rides, family camping trips, being near or on water as often as possible, and hiking along trails all year round.
Farji Shaheer is a healthcare professional who has worked at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis for over 20 years to provide healthcare assistance and bedside mentoring to those suffering from mental health crisis to traumatic gunshot wounds. Farji is also the founder and executive director of Innovative SOULutions, a nonprofit organization that supports individuals and corporations in engaging and educating themselves on making positive, effective SOULutions around equity, inclusion and diversity.
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